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Review: “High School DxD New” – Between Heaven and Hell

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High School DxD NewWith this review, High School DxD has the dubious honor on Toonzone of being the first anime franchise that necessitated a change in reviewers from one season to the next due to its content alone. For the reasons why, please read Speedy Boris’ review of Season One. Is the 2nd season, High School DxD New, so terrible that the 3rd season (already announced in Japan) will require a third Toonzone reviewer to watch it? Or did I somehow survive the avalanche of large, exposed breasts enough so that I won’t run away screaming when the 3rd season (titled BorN) comes calling?

High School DxD is full-frontal in its fanservice from the start, literally. The first word in the show is “breasts,” spoken by the perverted main character Issei (the English dub opts for an edgier variation), as he gets up and close and personal with the ample, topless chest of female lead Rias. This scene will be one of two things to viewers:

  1. An invitation, if fanservice is what you’re looking for.
  2. A challenge, to see how much of this you can take before you quit. “If you can’t handle this, then you probably shouldn’t go on.”

Unsurprisingly, this franchise has been successful with Japanese otaku, which is why the second season continued while so many other light novel adaptations halt after one 13-episode season. As a result, the creators are obliged to pander to this demographic from the get-go. Whenever there is an opportunity to put bare breasts on the screen, High School DxD New seizes it with relish. In fact, it was a bit of a challenge just getting printable screencaps for this review. Surprisingly, upskirt or panty shots (a hallmark of many an ecchi anime) are low in comparison. I fear it is because compared to topless women, a panty shot seems fairly tame. It makes me wonder if the day will soon come when an anime will be able to get away with showing what’s underneath those panties without the show being labeled hentai. Considering some of the imagery in the High School DxD New end credits, I don’t think we are that far off.

High School DxD New Rias MagicBelieve it or not, High School DxD actually has a plot, and it’s a surprisingly deep one for a show that is so immersed in fanservice. It follows a supernatural war between angels, devils, and fallen angels, and after a gory death in the first episode of season 1, Issei has become a devil in Rias’ service. Now with more experience and power, he is trying to make himself a force within Rias’ ranks, but they wind up crossing paths with angels and their allies, fallen angels, and devils who don’t share Rias’ agenda. Some confrontations turn explosive, others turn into “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of situations (High School DxD may be the only show in existence that has devils allying with the archangel Michael to destroy a greater threat, ever). A fourth party enters the show near the end of the 2nd season, further complicating matters (or so it seems).

High School DxD New FreedKiba, a secondary character in season one (and the sole male besides Issei in Rias’ ranks), gets much of the focus early on, and the insane fallen priest Freed (defeated in season one) drops by to unleash more hammy craziness after acquiring a piece of the great sword Excalibur. Later on, after a revelation about both God and Satan and their roles in this series, the three leading factions hold a summit to figure out how to best move forward and control the rogue elements in their ranks that have been causing trouble all series long. This climaxes in an intense battle where most primary and secondary characters get a chance to kick some ass, and the story crafts a decent enough villain to give the finale some measure of importance.

The plot would be strong enough without the fanservice, which makes the fanservice (particularly toplessness) quite disappointing. At the same time, the over-the-top nature of the fanservice seems to be employed primarily for comedic purposes, with titillation as the secondary objective. Every time a female character winds up naked or nearly so, something silly inevitably happens onscreen, usually to Issei. Issei’s relentless lecherousness also makes him slightly more refreshing than a typical ecchi protagonist who generally tries to avoid these situations but winds up in them anyway. Issei’s a pervert and knows full well his actions will get his ass kicked, but does what he wants to anyway because he thinks getting his ass kicked is worth it. At the same time, Issei wants desperately to assist his female allies in battle, so he does show a few of the decent qualities necessary to be a hero. The anime is walking an odd tightrope, and while it didn’t always work for me, I could see how it might work for others. It helps that many of the series’ most hilarious lines belong to Issei.

High School DxD NewIt wouldn’t be a fanservice-y series without highly attractive female characters, and High School DxD New makes sure we see many of them. Rias has one of the best designs for a female character in an ecchi anime in years, Asia hits the moe audience squarely, and newcomer Xenovia adds the sleek athleticism that the female cast was missing. In contrast to the majority of ecchi anime, a lot of work is also done for the male cast: Issei, Kiba, and newcomer Azazel (himself a much-needed older, adult presence) all have distinctive looks in their own rights. While it can be argued that the female cast is an excuse to appeal to the widest range of otaku possible, the attention paid to the male cast also keeps them distinctive from a creative standpoint.

The popularity of the series has also given the producers enough confidence to increase the show’s budget. High School DxD New looks fantastic. While the battle animation isn’t always fluid, I have not seen such gorgeous background/foreground art and terrific use of shading outside of Production I.G. productions like Psycho-Pass and Robotics;Notes. The plentiful fights are well-staged and easy to follow, and when everything is going all-out (such as the final battle of the season), the animation approaches theatrical quality. The animation also becomes smoother whenever breasts jiggle and bounce, which honestly shouldn’t be a surprise. Series director Tetsuya Yanagisawa knows his audience well, and he makes sure that the audience gets what they want.

The background music, by Ryoksuke Nagashiki, has also gotten a small budget boost. Some numbers from the first season wind up reused but several fresh tracks crop up over the course of the series. The blend of orchestral flourishes and rock, all with a gothic undertone, is a tried-but-true approach to a series like this. While it’s a bit generic, it gets the job done.

High School DxD NewSurprisingly, there are multiple opening and ending themes even though this is just one season, with opening and ending pair attached to a specific story arc. The first arc gets opener “Sympathy” (insert “sympathy for the devil” or “sympathy for the poor audience” joke here) by Larval Stage Planning (insert another, cruder joke here) and closer “Hoteishiki wa Kotaenai” by the Occult Research Club Girls (aka the Japanese female cast singing in character). The second arc gets “Passionate Argument” (insert yet another crude joke here) by J-pop starlet Zaq, and The Occult Research Club Girls get a second closer in “Lovely Devil”. None of the songs really stand out from an audio standpoint, and the visuals are best described as “getting away with everything they possibly can in 90 seconds.” No hyperbole.

Colleen Clinkenbeard directed the first season for FUNimation, but either she opted to hide behind an alias for this one or one of her FUNimation colleagues took over. Either way, the obvious pseudonym “C.T. Anger” is used for the dub voice director in this series, and the dub picks up well from where it left off from the first season. Jamie Marchi and Scott Freeman have subsumed into Rias and Issei, respectively. Freeman in particular has become a master at channeling Issei’s hot-blooded rants and general depravity. Using Marchi and Freeman as a backbone, the rest of the main cast is generally fairly new or are veterans accustomed to secondary roles, but all of them take to the material quite well. Several of them are hiding behind pseudonyms, such as “Ramona Newel” as Xenovia or “Chloe Daniels” as Asia, and bat-eared dub watchers will likely figure out who they are. Jamie Marchi also returns to write the dub scripts (with assistance from Tyson Rinehart), and they are her typical, American slang-filled affairs, though Marchi’s gift for comedic wordplay remains unparalleled among anime dubbing.

High School DxD NewThe Japanese cast also does a decent job overall. Yuuki Kaji is a highlight as Issei in his own right. Yoko Hikasa’s Rias is sweeter and softer than Marchi’s take on Rias, which gives Rias a different feel between the two versions. Hikasa’s Rias feels more maternal while Marchi’s version is more sensual, and this slightly alters the context of certain scenes, though not enough to make the entire series feel different. The most dramatic change between the two versions are Yoshitsugu Matsuoka and Ben Phillips as Freed. While both sound equally crazy, Phillips’ voice is much deeper and hammier which puts Freed into scenery-devouring territory, as opposed to Matsuoka’s more realistic and youthful voice.

Honestly, what amazes me about both dubs is how the actors never sound like they’ll burst out laughing in spite of the ridiculous things they have to say and observe. Even so, both Kaji and Freeman both barely keep from busting a gut during Issei’s defiant monologue against the final bad guy in this season (and in response to the questionable-but-totally-in-character motivation for Issei’s rant, the villain’s reaction is a flat “what?” which just makes it even more hilarious).

High School DxD NewIf you have somehow made it to the end of this review, you are likely this show’s target audience, and may have been from the start. In that case, High School DxD New will definitely give you what you want. For everyone else, if reading this review caused eyebrow-raising or lowering, this show will likely make you lose faith in the Japanese animation industry. It’s a show unapologetic about what it is, for better or worse.

At the same time, High School DxD New didn’t quite defeat me. I legitimately enjoyed some of the comedy and a few of the fights. It just makes me wish that it didn’t pander so thoroughly to otaku appeal with topless women every single episode. At the same time, who am I to attack High School DxD New for giving the audience what they want when it gives it to them with such a slick presentation? In the end, this show is heaven for some, hell for others, and a weird spot in-between for everyone else.